Wanda Jackson did not always know she was going to make history, but after years of struggle, it seems she is finally going to get her happily ever after.
“My life, in retrospect, plays out like a Cinderella story, but I didn’t think I was a trailblazer at the time I was going through it,” Jackson said in an exclusive interview with Nightlife describing her first tours, early career advice from the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll (yes, that King), and how newfound fandom and recognition have helped her enjoy more success than she ever imagined.
Jackson headlines the Saturday in the Park Festival Saturday, August 29 at Turley Park. Celebrating a career that spans seven decades, the rock ‘n’ roll royalty holds several titles, including the Queen of Rockabilly and the First Lady of Rock ‘n’ Roll. But only recently has Jackson received the accolades she richly deserves.
Jackson was born October 20, 1937, to Tom and Nellie Jackson in Maud, Oklahoma. Her father was a musician who nurtured her budding love for music. He bought Wanda a guitar and encouraged her to play.
Jackson began her professional music career while still in high school. In 1956, she won a talent contest that led to her own radio program. Hank Thompson heard her on the local Oklahoma City radio station and invited her to perform with his band, the Brazos Valley Boys. That opportunity led to a few recordings on the band’s label, Capitol Records. Songs included “You Can’t Have My Love,” a duet with bandleader Billy Gray that reached number eight on the country charts. When she asked for her own record deal, however, a producer informed Jackson that “girls don’t sell records.”
After she graduated from high school, Jackson began a tour in July 1955 with an artist who had created a buzz in Memphis— Elvis Presley. The two budding musicians briefly dated, and Presley coached and encouraged Jackson to perform the new form of music, rock ‘n’ roll.
“I wasn’t sure I could do it. I was a country singer,” Jackson said. “But he kept telling me I could, and finally I believed him.”
Jackson credits much of her strength to the support she received from her parents, who helped her find herself as an artist. “My daddy traveled with me,” she said, helping to manager her. “And my mom made all my clothes. They were both very supportive of what I did. They would have done anything for me.”
Wanda’s was unlike the traditional clothing worn by other female singers of the day— she opted for fringe dresses, high heels, and long earrings, a look she has previously claimed put the glamour back into country music.
With a strong support system and a mentor in Presley, Jackson decided to give the new rowdy rockabilly sound a go. She not only liked what she heard but later explained how the ability to just rear back and sing helped distinguish her. She blended country music with fast-moving fifties-era rock ‘n’ roll, often daring to record the genres on opposite sides of a record. With the occasional twang of traditional country choruses and the be-bopping verses, the 1956 hybrid track “I Gotta Know” peaked at number fifteen.
Her inimitable vocal style and upbeat material helped Jackson create some of rock ‘n’ roll’s most influential music right at its birth. In the late fifties, she recorded and released several seminal rockabilly songs, including “Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad,” “Mean, Mean Man,” “Fujiyama Mama,” and “Honey Bop.”
But the newfound musical identity came at a price, as both gender politics and societal presumptions about how women should behave began to affect Jackson’s reach on the listening audience. None of the above early rock songs became more than regional hits, with the exception of “Fujiama Mama’s” climb to number one in Japan, and many of them Jackson had to pen herself because the chances that anyone else would toss work her way were slim.
“I wouldn’t have the same problems at the live rock shows,” she said. “They were fine. I’d get out there and sing ‘Fujiama Mama’ and the crowd would love it.
But the disc jockeys wouldn’t play me. America, it seems, just wasn’t ready for a feisty female in fringe.